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Going Local, 2014: Some Good Election News

November 5, 2014 Leave a comment

File:Joseph Wright of Derby. Virgil's Tomb, Sun Breaking through a Cloud.1785.jpg

No one has ever said that RT isn’t a romantic, and he’ll add that being one is not a bad way to cope with troubled times. So here are his reflections on last night’s Republican sweep of the midterm elections–with a distinct stress on the positive:

1) Recreational Marijuana will soon be legal in five states, including Alaska. Five states doesn’t sound like a lot, but RT has a feeling that momentum is growing across the United States for full legalization. As RT has said recently, this can only be good news for West Virginia, which needs all the revenue sources (and legal jobs) it can get. (And by the way, Alaska will be taxing marijuana at $50 the ounce.)

2) Republicans did not quite take over the WV state legislature. They certainly got hold hold of the House of Delegates, with a 64-36 seat majority; on the other hand, the state Senate is evenly split, 17-17, and since the Governor is a Democrat, it means that the Senate remains effectively, if just barely, in Democratic hands. RT will opine that since Democrats have controlled the WV legislature since 1931, the change in power may not be an entirely bad thing. And it is certainly a wake-up call to state Democrats to do some housecleaning and decide how they can address West Virginia’s real needs.

3) Minimum Wage Increases. Voters in four Republican-controlled states have approved referenda increasing the state minimum wage. Of particular note is Alaska’s ballot measure, which raises the state wage to $10.10/hr. and thereafter indexes it to increases in the cost of living. Just to remind folks, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25/hr.

4) A Successful Gun-Control Initiative. Washington State will now require background checks on all gun sales, including at gun shows and online.

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Living in the eastern Panhandle as RT does, he saw a lot of local lifestyles as he canvassed with Kris Loken for the 62nd WV Delegate seat (she lost to a longtime incumbent). The big problem that Democrats face locally (and perhaps nationally) is the image we project: non-local and successful, or, to put things more plainly, we look like carpetbaggers, regardless of the length of time we’ve lived in the area or the efforts we’ve put into local organizations. On the other hand, RT thinks that the good work Democrats are investing in local lives and politics is building some bridges.

Painting: Virgil’s Tomb: Sun Breaking Through the Clouds (1785). Joseph Wright of Derby. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Martinsburg, the 14th Amendment, and Election Day 2014

November 4, 2014 Leave a comment

RT has had a busy morning running errands and putting together lunch for himself and his mother, but the tofu scramble was a hit, and the fudge bar for dessert was a bigger hit. Now it’s time to go downtown to see what he can do at Democratic Headquarters. But first, a few thoughts.

There is something mysterious about the U.S. constitution and elections in this country. Part of that mystery derives, RT thinks, from the first section of the 14th amendment to the constitution:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

RT thinks that “the equal protection of the laws” amounts to a perpetual, albeit slow moving, social revolution. As the decades have passed, “a woman’s place is in the house,” Jim Crow, and now the ban on gay marriage have all yielded to it. But of course this is confusing: nowhere does the constitution mention social revolution, but the attempt to create a society where all citizens are equal before the law (and not just in this country) may be the greatest such revolution ever undertaken.

And now the other part of the mystery: on election day, people cast their ballots in secret and, without having to explain themselves to anyone, sometimes overturn the counsels and predictions of the mighty. RT hopes that this election day will be one such moment.

And need RT remind his fellow citizens (and especially Democrats): by all means, get out and vote! (and if at all possible, volunteer to help).

Photo: Detailed View of Inclined Column and Support Brackets, Martinsburg Roundhouse. WikiCmns; Library of Congress. Public Domain.

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Issues, Issues: West Virginia, 2014

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

RT has been canvassing for a local candidate for the West Virginia legislature, Kris Loken, who is running for the WV House of Delegates 62nd district seat. An organized, focused, and determined lady, Ms. Loken served in the U.S. diplomatic corps for 27 years, and has been actively involved in local causes since her arrival in the state some years back. RT thinks she would make a great delegate.

Canvassing has been an eye-opening experience for RT, bringing him as it does into contact with a wide range of people and life stories. In particular, it has made him think carefully about what policies and approaches, other than the rather limited (though important) suggestions on the burner right now, would help WV climb out of the difficult spot it finds itself in.

What ails West Virginia is a syndrome hard to diagnose. Some problems,  nonetheless, are easy to identify:

1) Demand for coal, WV’s leading export, has recently plummeted. In 2013, the value of state coal exports fell 40%, from $7.4 to $4.4 billion. And this in spite of the fact that WV coal contains about 50% more energy than coal from Wyoming, which today is the United State’s leading producer of coal. The problem? WV coal is high in sulfur dioxide and costs more to extract–the easily reachable deposits have all been mined.

2) Wages in West Virginia continue to fall. Historically, the best paying jobs in the state have been in manufacturing, chemicals, and mining. Employment in all these sectors has fallen dramatically for decades, while the number of low paying service sector jobs has increased. Unionization has also declined, and the result of these changes has been a significant drop in worker income.

3) Young workers, educated in West Virginia, continue to leave the state in large numbers. With college tuition, as throughout the country, increasing dramatically in West Virginia, young workers often leave the state looking for better-paying jobs, if for no other reason than to pay off their student loans.

The debate continues over what to do about these changes, but seems, in RT’s opinion, to be bogged down in details, which, while important, do not give us overall goals for West Virginia. What is lacking is a sense of direction or momentum. No big picture solutions are being offered. RT offers a few suggestions:

1) Take advantage of the resources already available in the state. Leaders will often talk of the West Virginia’s coal and natural gas resources, but no so often of its human resources. If, as seems apparent to RT, workers in the state tend to show mechanical genius, a trait possibly left over from the glory days of manufacturing and railroads, then why not encourage the use of these skills? Why have glass manufacturing and pottery production, once big employers, been allowed to languish?

2) Encourage small businesses in West Virginia. Small businesses generate jobs, and their expenditures and profits remain within the state.

But starting a small business is no small feat: these days, a prospective small business owner must have excellent credit to obtain a start-up loan, and the extra hours and devotion to producing a high-quality service can easily exhaust the owners; finally, there are the paperwork requirements and local taxes.

The solution, as far as RT can see, is the creation of small business zones, areas that remove some of these barriers to economic development. These zones would offer not just tax breaks for businesses less than three years old, but also reduce monthly state, county, and municipal paperwork to a single document no longer than four pages and provide customized help from the state employment agency in finding appropriate staff.

RT recommends implementing this program in the Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling, Beckley, and Martinsburg areas.

3) Legalize recreational marijuana. In 2011, PBS ranked West Virginia as one of the biggest marijuana producing states in the country. Legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana in West Virginia–or at least legalize its medical use. And while we’re at it, let’s legalize hemp and its many uses.

hmmm…RT can see that while this post looks at some important issues, it doesn’t really offer a glimpse of what the overall direction West Virginia should be going in…a big topic for his next post.

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Want to help West Virginia Democrats? Here are a couple of links:

West Virginia Democratic Party

Berkeley County Democratic Party

Photo: Saturday Afternoon Street Scene, Welch, McDowell County, WV, 1946. Russell Lee. WikiCmns. NARA – 541004. Public Domain.

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Berkeley Arts Council–Martinsburg, West Virginia

June 25, 2013 1 comment

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Argonauta_nouryi--WikiPD

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Well, folks, it could be just another arts organization start-up, what with the economy being the way it is and Martinsburg and West Virginia not having the best reputations in the arts world. Things could peter out or, worse, develop into a runaway arts success story, with the emphasis on the word “success.”

But RT isn’t inclined to think so. The Berkeley Arts Council is starting in a relatively humble location, downtown Martinsburg, but one that is filled with seasoned artists in every medium and a local population of people who, thanks to the town’s railroad background, have a mechanical genius. There’s  something about this town that’s sympathetic to artists–and their needs.

And then there’s the poetry. RT is a believer in the early origins of art–the need for beauty is buried deep in the brain, and it can emerge in the talk of a bricklayer as suddenly as in the writings of someone with an MFA. RT has heard some profound poetry erupt in this locality.

The truth is, local artists need support as much as the people they teach; RT hopes that the BAC will help make the life of art easier to those already practicing and more appealing to those considering art as a career. And he hopes other local arts organizations will follow suit.

Here’s the BAC website link: check it out and think about what could be done in your area to improve support for artists.

RT

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PhotoArgonauta nouryi world record size shell (from private collection). WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Buckhannon, a State Judicial Capital? West Virginia Suggestions, Part 1

WVMap-doton-Buckhannon--CC3.0--Seth Ilys

Buckhannon, West Virginia

Ever the dreamer, RT has long been perplexed by certain negative trends in West Virginia, chief among them the state’s stagnant population: after decades of solid growth, the population reached an all-time high in 1950 (2 million), but has since drifted down to 1.8 million (77.1 people psm). Why is the state no longer able to increase its population?

A complicated question, to be sure, with more than a single answer. RT will confine himself to examining one of the factors that has led, from his point of view, to the drop in population.

We should start by noting how sparsely populated the state is, compared to its neighbors: Maryland has a population of 5.8 million (596 people psm); Virginia, a population of 8.1 million (206.7 people psm). This results in smaller cities: Charleston, West Virginia’s state capital, is also its largest city (pop. 51,731); this contrasts with Maryland (largest city, Baltimore, pop. 621,342) and Virginia (largest city, Virginia Beach, pop. 447,489).

What does this mean? From RT’s perspective, it means that West Virginia lacks a solid constituency for its interests, that is, a core population long committed to promoting the state’s well-being.

How to solve such an amorphous problem? RT says: look abroad (and in the past) to see what governments have done to encourage population growth in remote areas: they have built a new capital city. Whether we look at Washington, D.C., Brasilia (capital of Brazil) or Abuja (capital of Nigeria), we see that planned capitals grow into major cities.

Why might this be? 1) Planned cities have a coherence and beauty often lacking in cities that spring up spontaneously, that is, a street (or city) plan that gives pleasure to its residents; 2) capital cities of course are the seat of government, thus requiring a significant population to administer that government; 3) planned cities are often placed so as to resolve political tensions in a state, and produce a mixed, representative population from all parts of the state.

File:Buckhannon West Virginia.jpg

And so we come to RT’s suggestion: West Virginia should move its state judiciary to the small town of Buckhannon (pop. 5,639 and currently the county seat of Upshur County).

In response to the questions in reader’s minds, RT makes the following points.

1) Fifteen countries have multiple capitals. Some of these countries (e.g., South Africa, Nigeria, and Chile, have disparate populations (different cultures, religions, and environments) that all have to be accommodated in a single state. But this seems to RT to be a big part of West Virginia’s problem, with the state’s Ohio River counties looking west, while the Mountain Highlands and Eastern Panhandle counties inevitably feel closer to the Atlantic seaboard. And then there are the state’s southern counties, which include some of the poorest in Appalachia. The situation is not helped by the fact that national forests nearly split the state into eastern and western halves.

Buckhannon lies slightly west of the forest-park divide, along route 33, which if completed as planned, will finally provide West Virginia with a multilane east-west highway. It also happens to lie close to the intersection of route 33 with Interstate highway 79, which runs north-south from Charleston to Morgantown. The city is certainly much closer to the state’s eastern counties (currently, people from Martinsburg must drive 6 hours to reach Charleston) and is in fact more centrally located than the current capital, while not being too distant from it).

2) Why move the state judiciary, as opposed to the executive or the legislature? RT suspects that moving the judiciary would prove least disruptive to Charleston and emphasize the importance and independence of this branch of state government.

3) A national competition would be held to choose the architects who design the new state supreme court buildings and its surroundings. To contrast with the traditional architecture in Charlestown, RT recommends the choice of a modernist architectural firm, one capable of designing an efficient and striking building.

4) The new supreme court building and its surrounding residential neighborhoods could be paid for by a temporary tax on the extraction of the state’s coal and natural gas.

Success in part has to do with energy: a confident, positive attitude towards the present and future attracts people. Nothing could send a stronger signal of West Virginia’s confidence in itself than building a new judicial capital. And the city would help bind the state more tightly together even as it grows the population in the state’s central counties.

RT

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RT’s Related Posts: 1) West Virginia–How Poor? 2) Wheeling, West Virginia and the Dream of an American Fifth Coast.

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Map: WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Share-Alike, Unported. Author: Seth Ilys. Photo: Buckhannon, West Virginia (East Main Street); WikiCmns; CC 2.5 Generic; Author: Tim Kiser.

Shawnee: Martinsburg, RT, and the Fourth Person

November 13, 2012 2 comments

File:1872 Chiefs Cornstalk Logan and Red Eagle from Frosts pictorial history of Indian.jpgThe truth pursues us, wherever we are. Take, for instance, Martinsburg, where RT has resided these last five or so years. Truth to tell, the town does not have the best reputation. Drugs, prostitution, drifters, abandoned buildings, vacant storefronts: a down-and-out place. Be that as it may, RT has been discovering more about himself here than he would have imagined, say, two years ago.

For starters, one of RT’s grandfathers, his father’s father, to be precise, was born here. In 1906, at least according to the census records. And now RT has been able to visit the house where he was born. No mean feat, since he grew up knowing virtually nothing about him. It turns out, moreover, that granddad was not born in the shining house on the hill, but on a working-class street that is now rather run down and not exactly safe. But charming, all the same.

As RT’s mother has commented, his feelings for Martinsburg have changed. You could say the same thing about RT’s self-image.

But as important as that is, this post has more on its mind than finding granddad. This post is concerned with family roots in general, hidden roots in particular, and Indian roots most of all. Because, as it turns out, RT does have a feeling that something is missing in Martinsburg, and that something is its Indian foundations.

Here is the problem. Although West Virginia’s Wikipedia page reports the state’s population to be 98% white, RT keeps running into people who, in his view, clearly have Indian blood. Some of the tip-offs: long, lustrous black hair; reddish/brown skin; short, stocky women; and the famous eagle nose. Using these strictly unscientific criteria, RT estimates he has encountered 13 people in Martinsburg who are Indian descendents, though he thinks that only one of these is full-blooded. That individual is also the only one who clearly self-identifies as Indian, wearing his hear in a ponytail, with a silver-and-turquoise hair ring. Of the other 12, three admitted to RT that they had Indian blood: two men and one women. And then there was the lady who told RT that she had learned from her grandmother that she had Cherokee blood on both sides of her family–but her grandmother advised her to never tell anyone, because Indians had been badly treated in her grandmother’s day.

Why might these encounters (and their anecdotal evidence) be important? Because every place, even a down-and-out old railroad town, has something sacred about it. The roots go down deep (and sometimes less deeply, too), to the first person to discover the place, the first word spoken there, the first breath drawn by a living being, the first touch of water. And in these first memories, the human experience belonged to the Indians, to their languages and lifestyles and sensitivities. Just how different were they?

They were different, but in surprising ways. Take, for instance, their languages. The Shawnee, as it happens, were the largest tribe in pre-European West Virginia–their lands extended east from the Ohio River far into the state. Now, lest we be tempted to think that there was anything simplistic about the minds of the Shawnee people or their language, consider one of the grammatical quirks of their tongue: namely, the fourth person.

What? RT, during his peregrinations while growing up, encountered several languages and certainly became familiar with the idea of three grammatical persons: first (I), second (You), and third (He). But a fourth person–who might that be? Well, answering that question had RT googling and checking Wikipedia and generally giving himself a crash course in advanced grammar. And the answer turns out to be: the fourth person is a special kind of third person, namely, one other than the principal third person being discussed. Or, in other words, third person (principal He or They); fourth person (secondary or more distant He or They).

The uses of the fourth person can be subtle: a landowner will generally be understood to be in third person, but one who owns no land, in the fourth. Similarly, a member of nation will be marked in the third person; an outsider or foreigner in the fourth. Or again, a human will be marked in the third, an animal in the fourth, person. Or the distinction can be as simple as “A lady gave her friend a gift, and she [fourth person–the friend] went home.”

File:SunWatchVillage.jpgThe social and political implications noted by this grammatical distinction are significant and universal: every society distinguishes between more or less “important” persons. But the degree of distinction is telling. Consider the difference between referring to a horse as “it” or as “he [fourth person]”. Rights are attached to person-hood, and perhaps the Shawnee understood that these extended even to animals, an unmistakably civilized attitude. Taking this into account, we should not be surprised that the Shawnee are associated with the mound-building culture of the Ohio River (the Fort Ancient culture).

There is much in Martinsburg that is beautiful (and, sadly, little noted): the wonderful old buildings, the beautifully designed gardens and graceful side alleys. Even the street where my grandfather was born has always been full of life and dreaming, and the effort made by city residents to preserve and add to Martinsburg’s charm is impressive. At the same time, RT isn’t sure that an important resource, the area’s Indian heritage (and population), is being adequately studied or integrated into the town’s self-image and life. It could be a key to giving this remarkable place the recognition it deserves.   RT

Images: Top: Chief Cornstalk (Shawnee, 1872); Bottom: Sun Watch Village, restored Indian Village, Dayton, Ohio. Both images: WikiCmns, Public Domain.

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Legal but Discouraged: Marijuana

November 2, 2012 Leave a comment

File:La Roche Jagu chanvre 1.JPG

One of the greater political triumphs in recent memory is the tobacco settlement (officially known as the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement-MSA–entered into in 1998), which established a mechanism to deal with harmful substances, the use of which is deeply ingrained in a society. At the heart of the MSA is an exchange: the participating states agreed to exempt tobacco companies from private tort liability in exchange for the companies agreeing to curtail or stop certain marketing practices and pay in perpetuity certain amounts to the states to compensate them for the medical costs of caring for people with tobacco-related illnesses.

Could this agreement be a model for dealing with other personal vices, whether banned or legal but heavily regulated? In a few days, voters in three states (California, Colorado, and Washington) will be deciding ballot initiatives that legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Seventeen states have already legalized the medical use of marijuana, though none currently permit recreational use. Let’s look at possible applications of a legal-but-discouraged status to the use of the drug.

Also known as hemp, marijuana has a Jekyll-and-Hyde reputation. One of the oldest materials known to humanity, hemp can be used to make, among other things, rope, clothing, paper, biofuels, and biodegradable plastics. Hemp oil has shown anti-inflammatory properties in medical use, and hemp seeds can be eaten, ground into a meal, sprouted, made into hemp milk (akin to soy milk), prepared as tea, and used in baking. The fresh leaves can also be consumed in salads. Hemp seed can even be used as fish bait!

The difference between hemp and marijuana (Mj) is that marijuana contains, among other psychotropic compounds, tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), a compound that has analgesic effects and can relax people and alter their vision, sight, and hearing. Mj shows depressant, stimulant, and hallucinogenic effects in people, with an emphasis on hallucination.

* Medical uses: Well-documented benefits: Mj a) relieves nausea and vomiting, b) stimulates appetite in AIDS patients and people receiving chemotherapy, c) helps relieve the effects of glaucoma, and d) helps to relieve pain generally. Less-well-documented benefits: Mj can be used to treat a range of diseases that includes multiple sclerosis, depression, and Alzheimer’s.

File:Rational scale to assess the harm of drugs (mean physical harm and mean dependence).svg

Now we come to a nub of the problem: how dangerous is marijuana consumption? For adults, occasional consumption does not seem to harm the user. For adolescents and young adults, persistent, dependent Mj use does appear to harm the developing brain, at least as documented in a 35-year study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. (And readers should note the chart at right, which indicates that in general, Mj use lies towards the less toxic end of the spectrum.)

What should we do about all of this? Here are some suggestions:

1) Write a clear definition of the difference between hemp and marijuana into federal law and legalize hemp production, trade, and use. The benefits in lower food, clothing, and paper (and book!) costs alone would do much to help the U.S. economy (especially in rural areas and states such as West Virginia).

2) Keep the sale of marijuana to people under age 27 illegal. In view of the possible harmful effects on growing brains, the sale of Mj to adolescents should remain illegal. Teenagers caught smoking Mj should be sent to drug court.

3) Legalize the use of marijuana for people 27 and older. Smoking in public venues such as restaurants and bars would remain illegal, as would driving with intoxicating amounts of THC in the blood.

4) De-glamorize the use of Mj, especially among the young. Impose a sales tax on Mj to generate funds for anti-use media campaigns targeted at teenagers and young adults.

5) Impose a significant federal tax aimed at placing the cost of Mj out of reach of the poor and young.

There are no perfect solutions, and surely some teenagers would gain access to Mj no matter how stiff the penalties. But the question has to be: would the number of such adolescents be greater or smaller than under current law? RT is inclined to think that fewer youngsters would have (or want) access to the drug, the poor because of cost, the wealthy because of De-glamorization. And the quality of the product would improve through legal crop and production inspection. Adulterants such as boot polish, chalk, and turpentine would to a large degree disappear.

And there are other benefits to consider: 1) the money now spent on Mj eradication could be spent on other criminal justice needs; 2) the number of inmates in U.S. prisons would fall, perhaps significantly; 3) the economies of West Virginia and other states where Mj grows readily would be strengthened and diversified; and 4) a significant blow would be dealt to the funding of organized crime  All of this sounds like a big step in the right direction, and here is a link to NORML, which has been one of the leaders in the fight for legalization in the U.S. for some time. (& p.s., RT has never been, and does not plan to become, a user of Mj).     RT

Images: Upper image: Labyrinth at Chateau de la Roche Jagu; WikiCmns; CC3.0 Unported; author: Barbetorte. Lower image: WikiCmns, Public Domain.

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